Does Arthur Ransome’s book ‘Swallows and Amazons’ have parallels with missionary journeys?

An article first published in Mixed Moss, 2019, the journal of The Arthur Ransome Society:

Sophie Neville who played Titty Walker in ‘Swallows and Amazons’ (1974)


‘I can’t see it,’ the man was standing in the rain outside the cinema, ‘you said Swallows and Amazons has parallels to missionary life but I don’t get it.’ He was a vicar, camping with his family in the Lake District. After spending a week at the Keswick Convention, he’d brought his children to see the original film Swallows and Amazons (1974) at the Alhambra where I was giving a Q&A after a screening of the movie.

‘I once went on a short-term mission to Australia,’ I told him. ‘People would ask me if I was going to convert the natives.’ I explained the archaic idea of berating aboriginal people filled me with horror but use of the word ‘natives’ reminded me of Swallows and Amazons. This led me to consider how deeply Arthur Ransome was influenced by missionary journeys of the early 1900s. As the author, Julian Lovelock points out, ‘exploring, trading and being a missionary were, in Victorian times, all shades of the same colonial activity. Dr Livingstone is often described as an ‘explorer-missionary’. This is the 80th Anniversary year of the publication of Secret Water where ‘missionaries’ enter Ransome’s world in their ‘mission ship’ Lapwing.


‘Would’t Titty like this?’

Linda Hendry, of The Arthur Ransome Society (TARS), observed that as a boy of ten, Arthur envied his Aunt Edith and Aunt Jessie who were going off to China as missionaries. Did this idea of adventures last with him?

Although his father, Cyril Ransome, came from a clerical background and ensured Arthur received a biblical education in Windermere, Margaret Ratcliffe of TARS reports that ‘there is never a hint of spirituality’ in his letters and diaries. ‘Arthur and Genia were not of an active religious persuasion; Christmas and Easter were ordinary days for them.’ The only time he went to church on a regular basis was when he lived in Finsthwaite and his closest fishing friend was the vicar, the Rev. Roland Pedder. ‘Arthur Ransome never mentions that they discuss spiritual matters, rather hooks, bait and water levels.’ I agree with Margaret’s view that any analogy ‘would have been subliminal on his part, rather than conscious’ but it is embedded in the story, all the more interesting for being unintended.

The reality of going on overseas missions does have parallels with Swallows and Amazons. You tend to set off as a group or family, like the Walker children, and usually end up helping people who need a bit of support, even if it is not what you might expect. Those once wounded often make the best doctors. One of the key themes, perhaps driving force behind Swallows and Amazons is fatherlessness. Is the story an out-working of Arthur Ransome’s grief for his own father who died when Arthur was thirteen? Was he desperate to prove that he is as reliable and resourceful as Captain John, planning the expedition while Commander Walker was in Malta preparing to sail to Hong Kong? As it is, the Swallows gain Daddy’s permission while remaining under the umbrella of their mother’s care, making sensible preparations before setting sail. This is very like missionary groups who usually need permission from the church with back-up and support from their mission organisation.

Peter Wright, chairman of The Arthur Ransome Society, added, ‘The Amazons seek out the Swallows in much the same way as indigenous people came to find out about early explorers.’ Any number of missionaries have had arrows fired at them. The Swallows discover that Nancy and Peggy not only prove to be the same age but share their terminology and outlook on life. They too have no father around and have recently been rejected by their uncle who is busy writing. As a result, they are being naughty, letting off a firework on the roof of his houseboat. The Swallows make friends with them and end up helping Uncle Jim to see sense.

Everyone’s moral values are tested in Swallows and Amazons. Uncle Jim realises he has been neglecting his relationship with his nieces and sees what ‘a cross-grained curmudgeonly idiot’ he’d been to ever doubt John Walker’s integrity. Although this casts a shadow on idyllic island days, it almost visibly builds John’s character before his leadership skills are stretched by challenges set by Nancy. The other characters use their gifts to the full, Susan becoming the practical facilitator and Roger learning to be helpful. Titty is the one keen on diving for fish like a cormorant. She keeps the journal or ‘ship’s log’ and takes guidance from Robinson Crusoe that, ‘tells you what to do on an island’, being well-aware that missionaries could be eaten by cannibals. Although her active imagination is undervalued at first, she comes up with ideas that prove vital.

When the Swallows meet indigenous people of the area like the charcoal burners, they are both polite and respectful, taking an interest in traditional beliefs, such as keeping an adder under the bed for luck. Although Roger makes a bit of a gaff, saying Old Billy ‘doesn’t look much like a son’, the others take an interest in ‘savage’ language and culture.

The Swallow’s mother looks out for them constantly. She reprimands John and sets rules when he goes too far, ‘No more sailing at night’, but continually ensures they are provisioned and their needs met. It might not be expected, but there are battles to be won on the mission field. They are usually tricky, demanding timely action and often involving discomfort akin to sleeping in a dinghy moored by Cormorant Island. Interestingly, it is Titty, the littlest girl, who finds the strength and courage to also find the buried treasure and bring restitution.

‘What did the burglars do when they found the treasure had gone?’ one little girl in the cinema asked?

Quick as a flash, Marc Grimston of TARS EAST, who was in the audience, said, ‘Captain Flint carves a fish for them to find instead of the trunk.’ Repentant and forgiven himself, Jim Turner opts to convince the thieves of their guilt rather than report them to the police.

The great thing is, that whilst fishing from boats and weathering the storm, firm friendships are forged that take the Swallows and the Amazons on further adventures, even to the ends of the Earth. There is something inspirational about these that stories lead others to extend themselves, hoist their sails and live life to the full.

Sophie Neville in China

~ Sophie Neville supporting an adult literacy programme in rural China ~

You can’t go out as a missionary expecting to convert the natives. You need to come alongside people who are hurting, find the key to their needs and help them use their God-given ability to fulfil their dreams. It can be scary and things won’t always go smoothly but you are usually warned of danger. There will be a need for strong leadership when times become testing but it should be fun. If you can gain people’s trust and hold on to the unity there will be celebration and feasting in the end.

~ Sophie Neville on a Bible Society mission of encouragement to China ~

The vicar, standing in the rain beside his bicycle, began to appreciate the parallels. You may find more. One thing is certain: there is something about the Swallows and Amazons series of books that enables adults to enjoy them as much as children. We can escape pressures of contemporary life and are inspired to fulfill our dreams, becoming all the good Lord wants us to be, doing all the things He has prepared us to do.

You may disagree completely, you may can find parallels in other Arthur Ransome books please write in, using the comments box below.

Duncan Hall of the Arthur Ransome Group on Facebook wrote: ‘Of course, throughout (the series of Swallows and Amazons books) there are references to fictional and non-fictional adventures of exploration and discovery which historically sat with Empire, missions and trade as well as with piracy, etc. They do contrast with a political outlook that is clearly oppositional to those traditions. We always end up being impressed by savages (in the Lakes or the Walton backwaters) rather than hoping to civilise them. In Missee Lee, we obviously want to protect the location of the Three Islands, rather than send Daddy’s gunboats over there (despite the pretty monstrous business that Miss Lee presided over, we are convinced that the Brits destroying their way of life would be more monstrous still).


Filed under Arthur Ransome, British Film, Christian, Cinema, Claude Whatham, Cumbria, David Wood, Family Film, Film History, Movie stories, Sophie Neville, Suzanna Hamilton, Swallows & Amazons, Swallows and Amazons, Titty in Swallows and Amazons, Uncategorized, Vintage Film

12 responses to “Does Arthur Ransome’s book ‘Swallows and Amazons’ have parallels with missionary journeys?

  1. JillG

    Many years ago TARS was approached (through an infant internet) by an undergraduate on a children’s literature course in Canada who had been instructed to write an essay on symbolism in SA; she asked us several alarming questions such as ‘What is the symbolism of the cormorants on the island?’ Er, the cormorants are not symbolic; they are there because a) they’re really there, on the island in the lake in the north; b) AR gets the children to notice them because he enjoyed and noticed them because of the China connection (see ML); c) he needs the reader to clock the presence of the island, as a future site of two important scenes. We TARS did have fun, though, imagining the cormorants as symbolic of Leninism etc!
    Allegory has a little more validity than symbolism in these circs, I’d say, though I lack time to explore it now. We should bear in mind of course that we as children have always done make-believe of the culture of our own day – so I and friends played ‘cowboys and Indians’ etc, while children of AR’s time will have played ‘missionaries’. So AR may truly have simply been writing through a process of thinking how children think, rather than standing outside that world writing it as an allegory. The best word might be ‘parallel’ – so absolving AR of having an agenda while writing it, and looking from outside at how a well-written story of childhood adventures can help us to envisage a larger story; I think that vicars often do this sort of thing for sermons!

  2. John Bainbridge

    Most fascinating. I think there’s a lot in that. I must re-read the Ransome biography.

  3. drdanvine

    There are some possible unintentional parallels with bible parables. Whilst Ransome seems agnostic, he has clearly read the Bible. His books have vague parallels with The Parable of the Ten Virgins, The Talents.

    For instance, Secret Water has echoes of the Parable of the Talents. In the fathers absence, John’s motivation is to “Do his father’s will” and get the map done (Nancy not so much).

    Secret Water and Pigeon Post all have the concept of being ready for when Father / Uncle Jim returns.

    In “We didn’t mean to go to sea”, it follows the Bible pattern of Perfect Eden -> The Fall -> Restoration / Redemption / Second Coming.
    The Father rescues them in Holland, and is pleased to find the children following his character / principles to the best of their ability. The Father graciously glosses over John’s mistakes and sees a mature sailor. Even in the middle of a storm John asks What Would Daddy Do…

    • Fascinating observations. Thank you so much for taking the time to write in. I expect Ransome was still grieving the loss of his own father before he could prove himself capable as a sailor and elder brother. Let me know of anything else you see and do put something together for Mixed Moss.

  4. JillG

    A lump came into my throat as I read your comment about AR grieving the loss of his father – yes, the relationship between all the children and their fathers is an interesting area for study, and I like your and drdanvine’s insights. You might both like a piece relating to this subject (with thoughts on AR’s relationship with his daughter) written ages ago by a 12-year-old TAR and published on All Things Ransome: I arranged the publication but it’s all her own words – golly, I wish I’d had such maturity and insight at that age! Isobel is now an established actress.
    I certainly see a Mixed Moss piece coming on – perhaps a combined article by all of us? A good format is where we address a subject and each separately gives our thoughts.

  5. I find it helpful to distinguish between religion, morality and spirituality here. I think there is quite a bit of spirituality and morality in Ransome’s books, but it is not of the formal religious kind. In the Autobiography (Chapter VI, covering 1901), however, he says “I set myself to make a pilgrimage, going every Sunday to a different place of worship, Unitarian, Wesleyan, Congregationalist, Church of England, Baptist and, in deference to my Quaker ancestors, to a meeting place of the Friends. Here I had an unfortunate experience. I liked the decent quiet of the meeting until one of the Friends thought he was inspired to speak. I think he was mistaken.’ He describes a man overcome with passion for God and foaming at the mouth … ‘I suppose I might attend a thousand Quaker meetings without witnessing anything so horrifying or so unseemly”.

    To me, this shows a man who is seeking a spiritual connection, and is disappointed that he cannot find it in the “form” that some humans have devised to worship God in: “the” Church. He says that the Quaker experience was “unfortunate” – suggesting that he may otherwise have felt at home there. But if the Society of Friends really was the place where he belonged, he would have tried again. I think that his meeting with the Collingwoods may have been the answer to his spiritual quest.

    I do wonder why, if he was not spiritual, he mentioned his spiritual “pilgrimage” at all in an autobiography where he deliberately omitted or minimised some other key life events. I think it was important. 🙂

    • Do you see any particular examples of Ransome’s spirituality in ‘Swallows and Amazons’? What about other books in the series?

    • JillG

      AR’s account reminds me strongly of when, at boarding school, all younger pupils went to the school chapel but we VI formers could instead go to any place of worship; so a small group of us set out to try out a range of places in the town, and the nicest was the Quaker experience. No foamers at the mouth, fortunately! I don’t remember taking much notice of the few words said by people at times, but we all liked the simple unquestioning acceptance of our presence, and the atmosphere of unstrained peace (no-one asking us to be ‘mindful’ etc). The funniest was a very high Anglican church where the congregation did a lot of suddenly standing up or kneeling and we kept getting caught out, so inevitably we got the giggles. But we were not touring the places of worship out of a desire to find a spiritual connection; we were young people doing it out of curiosity and a desire to learn about the different ways that people did things. So that’s actually how AR’s account strikes me. (He does indeed,say ‘pilgrimage’, but of course that word is widely used in a non-religious sense as a mission involving travelling.) Just a thought! AR was always very curious about people and their practices and activities.
      As for spirituality in the S&A books, I’ll have to have a think about that! I don’t know whether AR’s good trick counts of showing us humans in a stunning landscape, without resorting to purple prose? He’s always conscious of nature as the environment in which humans move.

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